I Used to Dream of Front Loaders
This post is going to start with two disclaimers. The first and most important is that I am hesitating to write this because I don’t want to be misinterpreted and I don’t want this to be misconstrued as being judgmental. This is a reflection of me – specifically, where I’m at in my life now – and not a judgment of anyone else. The second is that because this is about me and not about my travels per se I am not exactly comfortable telling you all this, but recently I’ve had the conversation with at least three friends about sharing my experiences and writing a book. Over breakfast, one person in particular specifically questioned why I didn’t write anything personal and it made me recognize that I feel like the personal aspects of my journey would not be of interest to most people. But whether or not that’s true – and I am not fishing for encouragement here – I am going to go ahead and tell you a story.
I used to think all the time about buying a house. All my former co-workers own homes as do many of my friends and I was asked on more than one occasion why I still chose to rent after living in the same area for ten years. Well, as much as I really wanted the security and stability of owning the place where I lived, I knew I didn’t want to stay in the area I lived for the rest of my life. But yet I found myself drooling over real estate listings on a fairly regular basis, stopping only just short of the application process. I even looked at a few places.
More often than thinking about houses I found myself constantly researching what I would put in it. Today I walked past a display of new washers and dryers en route to the bathroom in Lowe’s (in whose parking lots I occasionally hang out in order to use their wifi for uploading blog posts) and I was flooded with emotion. You see, I had a specific plan for the purchase of clothes-washing mechanisms that neatly sums up my life prior to me taking this trip. Let me backtrack a bit. Prior to this trip I had a plan for everything, a strategy, a way of maximizing resources in order to make my life as comfortable as possible and acquire everything I wanted, or thought I wanted. I would run the numbers all the time, getting excited when I recalculated my average annual mileage on my car and realizing it could be on “the 14-year plan,” meaning I determined that I would almost certainly be able to drive it an additional year before needing to invest in a new vehicle, which would thus allow me to stretch my resources. This was obviously before I started putting 40,000+ miles a year on her. When I needed a new couch a couple years ago I deliberately chose the expensive one – the one I really wanted – because it was high-quality and would thus last me for at least 10 years per my plan. Everything I purchased or didn’t purchase was evaluated in terms of investment. Some things, like the couch, I chose to invest in because they were more important to me and because I would easily be able to move it to my future home. But I agonized over these decisions. Most things I deliberately chose not to invest in or upgrade, sticking with my old, cheaper stuff or, if that needed replacement as my washing machine did suddenly about three years ago, I would substitute with an inexpensive version, waiting until I had my house that I could fill with the perfect things: the things I thought would make me happy.
Essentially, my life used to be all about what I would acquire or what I would not acquire. I didn’t really question this mentality. I was essentially moving unconsciously through life in many ways. But a couple years ago I did start to question these ideas. Thoughts suddenly appeared in my head, realizations that I didn’t actually want to commit to the purchase of this or that, that I didn’t need it… or even want it. These thoughts, though infrequent at first, quickly became enmeshed in my whole changing outlook as I (apparently) recognized them as representative of what I wanted or rather, didn’t want in my life. Suddenly at age 31 I found myself contemplating a different way of living… but not too different. And then around last January I had a flash of a thought – kind of a mental picture – of me driving across the desert on a trip, a long trip in which I would need to be temporarily unemployed in order to do. I immediately (and I do mean immediately) dismissed such an idea as crazy. How could I not work? What about security? How would I be able to take care of myself if something happened? But this thought would not leave me alone and I started pondering the possibility of semi-extended traveling all the time. I researched and then I researched more. I discovered alternatives to conventional ways of travel like sleeping in my car or backpacking in national parks or finding free camping on public land that would make a trip like this affordable. I did a lot of budgeting, pricing out backpacking gear (because I had never done more than the occasional day hike before this trip), estimating fuel costs based on a potential route and average miles per gallon, looking into things like travel insurance, determining how much it would cost to maintain my apartment while I wasn’t there, and literally hundreds of other things. I had lists. And spreadsheets. But even when I realized I could do a trip like this for 5-7 months (the amount of time based on whether I ended up being closer to my final conservative, expected, or aggressive budget scenarios), I still wavered. But at this point the balance had already tipped and instead of thinking “oh, this would be so amazing but I could never do that,” I was thinking “I can actually do this… but that’s crazy.” And at some point it became, “I’m going to do this… wow, this is crazy, but yes, I’m going to do this.” And so on June 24th last year I left.
But I still had plans: I was going to figure out a new career en route and hopefully stumble upon the perfect place to move to (out of the eight or so finalists that – you guessed it – I had extensively researched). Thoughts of a future house and a new matching set of front-loading washer/dryers had been replaced with thoughts of finding a way of life that would make me happy, which would include a job in which I would receive less compensation. But I was still considering returning to a “normal” life, though with a different job and in a different location. At some point those nagging thoughts appeared in my head again, I couldn’t come up with a “normal” job that might make me happy, and I started to daydream about traveling even longer. My decision to give up my apartment and donate or give away most of my stuff is recounted in this post so I won’t repeat that story but as you probably all know from reading this blog, I now basically live in my car and travel around exploring , volunteering, and reading.
Seeing those shiny new washers and dryers today really just gave me perspective on how different things are from a year ago. To be clear, I am not a different person, I am just more of the person I really am: I am living the life I want to live, at least for now, today. Which brings me back to my first disclaimer at the beginning of this post – I do not judge anyone’s way of life. I do not judge anyone who lives in a house or has nice appliances. This is also important: at some point, maybe tomorrow or maybe in five years, I will stop traveling and I will once again own a washer and dryer (well, maybe not but at least some furniture). But I will not be unconsciously purchasing and acquiring things and I will not be spending my time wondering what stuff I can use to fill my life though I’m sure I will still try and acquire versions of things that I like rather than just random ones (for example buying a green bath towel instead of blue because my favorite color is green). I want to be clear on this point too: I am not immune to nice things or comfort. As much as I am happy doing what I do now there are times when I am tired and cranky and there are times when I have a strong preference for a bed or even something as trivial as wishing there wasn’t so much poison ivy on the trail. I am not leading some sort of perfect enlightened life and I am constantly progressing in giving up my attachments to things that are not a (my) reality. I don’t think I can help these thoughts from surfacing – I’m still spoiled from having been fortunate my whole life and living a comfortable existence – but I can recognize these thoughts and now I know that a bed won’t make me happy (well, most days) and that ultimately I am happy living this life today and I don’t want something else. And another point to be clear on is that if I do want something such as a bed or a nice, organic kale salad I could go get it. But I find that almost always I do not want the big things though I still choose to spend my money on things like a bag of kale because it’s important to me and because I can. So you see I am not an ascetic and I am not really all that different in the sense that I still seek out comfort but it’s just that now I know which comforts are worthwhile enough for me to invest in. And I still research the hell out of everything and I still drive myself crazy making plans sometimes and I still do everything to make sure I can take care of myself. It’s just that now I live more(so) in the present, aware of what I am doing and what I want. And I know that I don’t actually want a front-loading washer and dryer.